Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

The Bedlam Stacks Cover The Bedlam Stacks [2017] – ★★★

You’re not off to find the Northwest Passage on a thousand-mile plain of ice populated by six Esquimaux and an owl. It’s only Peru” [Pulley, 2017: 46].

When I found out that there is a book set in Peru, takes place in the 19th century, and concerns itself with Incan mythology, I knew immediately I had to read it because all these things appeal to me immensely. In the book by Pulley, we meet an explorer Merrick Tremayne, previously of the East India Company, who now resides in Cornwall with his brother. He has an injured leg and no prospects in England since his family fortunes are in decline. When his friend Clem visits him and suggest that he goes to Peru to fetch cinchona cuttings (which yields quinine), which can then help to cure malaria in India (on the orders of the East India Company), it seems like an impossible task. This is not least because there is a local monopoly regarding the trees in the region, and the journey can prove to be very dangerous. Merrick goes to Peru, with the aim to reach the village of Bethlehem or Bedlam, and soon finds that he needs to rethink his understanding of indigenous traditions, history and beliefs, and do it quickly if he wants to survive. The Bedlam Stacks is steeped in Incan folklore and has an eerie atmosphere, providing for a curious read. However, this book was definitely not a page-turner for me. It has a messy and confusing overall theme, caricature presentations, some unclear and dull descriptions, and – what I believe – a very unsympathetic character in the centre, all making the reading experience less enjoyable. 

The book starts early with its mystery theme because when Merrick is at home in Cornwall he notices something unusual regarding one of the statues at home and is labelled mad by his brother as a result. Then, when Merrick is finally in Peru, the story reads like an interesting travelogue and there are descriptions of Peruvian landscape. As readers, we feel a sense of danger surrounding Merrick and Clem’s expedition. They have to pose as either coffee-seekers or mapmakers because of the existing monopoly on cinchona in the region. Then they meet Don Martel, a trader, and hear all the strange stories about people trying to cross the line to get to the trees. There is a tension surrounding indigenous people in the region, and Merrick and Clem soon have no choice but to follow their guide – enigmatic Raphael to his town of Bethlehem to get close to the trees. It is great to read the story’s beginning because it is all about this mounting mystery, and then the blending of fantasy and fiction is simply delightful. “I feel like we’ve been edging around a set of laws nobody can explain since we arrived” [Pulley, 2017: 221], says Merrick, and the atmosphere of unease and apprehension is certainty there. One of the main mysteries surrounds stone markayuq or statue guardians of the area, which was actually part of the real Incan mythology.   

One of the problems of The Bedlam Stacks is that, for a fantasy fiction book, it is strangely tedious and uneventful. There are many non-fiction expedition books out there which are more exciting that this fiction variant. I normally enjoy “slow-burn” narratives, but The Bedlam Stacks is also a bit repetitive. Those who are completely unacquainted with the Peruvian landscape and Incan culture will probably discover something in this novel and love it for it, including the Quechua language, talking knots and mysterious Incan architecture. However, for others, there will be almost nothing new to discover, except maybe an interesting fusion of fact and fiction regarding the markayuq. In that vein, the journey of Merrick is almost unremarkable and that is saying something since it is supposed to be a fantasy-travel book. Merrick comes across “beautiful Incan roads” [Pulley, 2017: 60], becomes acquainted with high altitude sickness, and tries consuming coca. The book does not do particular justice to the Incan culture, and the author seems to merely try to rewrite in her fiction account some parts of the folklore.

The Bedlam Stacks also seems to be confused about its main theme and message. Pulley seemingly randomly throws into her story mythological elements and historical findings related to (i) clockwork; (ii) bees; (iii) glass; (iv) stacks; (v) stones; (vi) mercury; (vii) whitewood; and (viii) pollen lamps, among others. The result is a bit of a mishmash of ideas, and confusion what all these elements are supposed to mean as a whole. There is no coherent thread running through the novel, save maybe the relationship between Merrick and Raphael. Pulley tries to make it all more interesting with a non-linear plot, but there is also one book chapter set in India/China, which is almost needless to tell this story.

The novel is composed of either densely written descriptions, which are not easy to read at all, or dialogues which sometimes lead to nowhere plot-wise. In fact, key passages in the novel are not written clearly enough to understand immediately what is being described. This actually adds to the dullness of the narrative. Moreover, when some sentences are clear, Pulley employs weirdly pretentious words and phrases, such as “people …had been burnished” [Pulley, 2017: 61], or words like peristalsis. The author also (rightly) believes that one of the ways for us to get sympathised with Merrick is to get him handicapped, in love with his dog and having a “cruel” brother. This succeeds to some extent, but then we also have to acknowledge that Merrick is an ex-smuggler for the East India Company, and it is inconceivable that he does not know and, therefore, does not privately accepts and approves of all the sinister exploitation techniques that the company inevitably has to use to make its profit. His association with the company and, hence, its practices is indisputable in the novel. That should make him an unsympathetic character in the eyes of many, and one must also accept that the sheer presence of white men on the territory of Bethlehem endangers the village (no matter how noble their purpose may be). It becomes hard to care for any characters in the story and the most interesting and intriguing character is Raphael, who is complicated: “there was, like the stacks, a brittleness in him and a glass core” [Pulley, 2017: 180].

Some form of ignorance also seems to be the main thread in this novel. The character of Merrick appears too ignorant for a person who worked for a number of years as a smuggler for the East India Company. With that unparalleled “international” experience behind him, it is unbelievable that he should not know what a “mestizo” is. Pulley also writes “Spanish and English aren’t different languages, only extreme dialects of Latin. It’s almost possible to translate word for word” [Pulley, 2017: 99]. That is stretching English too far. English was influenced by Latin in some way, but still putting these two languages together like that is misleading enough. English and Spanish are from entirely different groups of languages. The former belongs to the Germanic language group, while the latter is part of the group of Romance languages, together with French and Italian.

The great merit of this book is the way imagination and facts are interwoven together to produce an unusual narrative. The book opens up Peru and provides a glimpse into Incan mythology. However, this is merely Natasha Pulley’s second book and that also shows. It is incoherent regarding its main theme and message; its dense writing does not help to clarify story situations, often leading to dull passages; and, more importantly, it tries to induce our sympathy for the indefensible. 

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8 thoughts on “Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

  1. I’ve never heard of this book, but it sounds amazing! I love books that draw on the history of little known peoples, like the Incans, as well as about people traveling the world to learn about different places. I am definitely putting this book on my TBR. Thank you for your detailed review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are welcome! Yeah, the book was very popular some months ago or a year ago, and obviously I have an unpopular opinion on it. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the way Pulley incorporated Incan folklore into her story. After the beginning, it was a chore for me to read, though, and I hope you will like it more 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a relief to read another negative review of this book! I received an ARC for this one and still feel a teensy bit guilty for not enjoying it more. The pacing really is a mess, though. There are so many beautiful/wondrous images that I wanted more from this book. How can something so imaginative be so boring?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for agreeing, and exactly! The pacing was a bit terrible. I did not think it was possible before to set a book in such an exciting location, make it all about this fascinating expedition, surround it with interesting Inca myth-related elements, etc. and still make it – dull. Somehow Pulley managed to achieve just that. Incredible.

      Liked by 1 person

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